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In Haiti or nearer home, Headwaters Relief's brand of hands-on disaster help gets results





When Cheryl Vennerstrom arrived in Haiti for the first time last July, she was overwhelmed by what the January 2010 earthquake had left behind.

 "There was so much damage, so much poverty, so much nothing," she says. "You look and say, 'How can I help? It will take decades to fix this.'"

Undaunted, Vennerstrom and her fellow volunteers from Headwaters Relief Organization got to work at what they do: identify the need, address it directly, and, as Headwaters' Rebecca Hage Thomley puts it, "pay it forward."

In late February, Headwaters made its third trip to Haiti to continue its work delivering mental health services--and more basic aid like food and books--to several orphanages there.

Behind Headwaters

Since a trip to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005, Headwaters' all-volunteer network has delivered direct and ongoing support to communities reeling from natural disaster, from the Haiti earthquake to Hurricane Katrina to floods in Minnesota and Iowa. Headwaters has traveled to New Orleans 11 times for its "River of Hope" effort, which includes running a mental health center established there in 2009.

All of Headwaters' 600-or-so volunteers are just that; the nonprofit has no employees, and its administrative services are "donated" by Golden Valley-based social services management company Orion Associates, of which Thomley and Vennerstrom are CEO and COO, respectively.

Orion is a core sustainer of Headwaters; almost all its employees volunteer for it and for other nonprofits. Orion makes it easier by offering paid time off for volunteering.

This all allows Headwaters to dedicate 100 percent of donations to its relief causes, a key point for Thomley.  

""If you give us a dollar, that dollar is going back out," she says.

Help for Haiti

Headwaters applied its modus operandi to the Haiti effort. Instead of sending money for food or books, they buy and deliver the goods in Haiti, either personally or through their Florida-based partner organization ACTS World Relief, which provides housing, interpreters, and other assistance to Headwaters in Haiti.

What they found on their first trip were hungry children in a shattered environment in the most basic of need, especially of food. Within 24 hours after returning from the weeklong trip, the team had raised $3,500 from friends and family--enough for nine months worth of food, says Vennerstrom.

"When we came this time," says Rebecca Hage Thomley, "what we saw that was so powerful for us was that now the children, after having regular food for nine months, they were actually dancing. Before, they were listless, lying in cots."

(The most recent trip almost didn't happen; Headwaters postponed travel in January because of unrest due to the unresolved presidential elections. Airports were closed, and in January, attackers tried to kidnap the director of one of the orphanages. He successfully fought off the assailants in a particularly violent scene, and Headwaters' regular driver was shot three times in the chest. Both survived and are recovering, but the Headwaters team returned a month later with "a little more anxiety," Thomley says.)

Beyond the Basics

Upon arrival, they found that the orphanage had moved to a new, safer location, but it was one "in transition," says Thomley--no doors, concrete floors and next to no electricity. The volunteers slept on cots and took "cold showers if you took a shower at all," she says.

They also found that the children's improved nutrition meant they were better able to engage in structured play and activities like singing, drawing, crafts, physical play, and performances, like the "beautiful and moving song" one teenager wrote about the earthquake, says Vennerstrom.

Meanwhile, Thomley spent much of her time working with orphanage "staff"--a loose term for "whoever has decided to take these children off the street and try to run these orphanages," she says. Headwaters provides materials and "talks about ways to interact, the support that's needed--normalizing what you can expect to see from these children, who are really pretty traumatized," she says.

"Many of these children were not orphans prior to the earthquake. Knowing how to interact with them is really important," says Thomley, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and has many years of experience working and volunteering for mental health and relief organizations.

(Though Thomley is clearly a driving force behind Headwaters, she downplays any hierarchical entitlement or assignment. "We work side by side, and nobody gets special treatment," she says. "Anybody we work with would expect to be cleaning up the same mess that anybody else would.")

Training the orphanage leaders is another way to ensure long-term, sustainable success. Headwaters has identified other ways to do this, like its current drive to collect laptops and printers for a school that not only needs them, but intends to open a much-needed internet café that can provide a service and a profit to pay for books.

That's what Thomley means when she says "pay it forward"--while Headwaters is well on the way to collecting donations for another six months of food aid, for example, Thomley is aware that there is "still no mechanism for food once the donations run out."

"Helping to feed these orphanages is helping to keep these children alive at this point," she says, "but there's no long-term system put in place."

Sponsoring a Student

Hope for the long term lies with Haitians like Jameson Leo, whom Headwaters volunteers know well as "Leo." Like the school he planned to attend, Leo's plans to study medicine collapsed with the earthquake. Leo was a stand-out interpreter with Headwaters and ACTS, and Headwaters decided on the recent trip to sponsor his education--in the United States.

Leo returned with the team in early March, but it was not easy to get him out of Haiti or into the U.S. Obtaining a visa required college acceptance, passing an English proficiency test, and convincing the U.S. embassy that Leo intends to go back to Haiti.

That's a tall order while sitting in a ditch with a laptop connected to a temporary generator.

The 22-year-old will start a two-year program at Minneapolis Technical and Community College (MCTC) in July, with the intention of transferring to a four-year school and, "Lord willing," he says, on to medical school. His intention is, indeed, to return as a doctor to his home country.

Leo says that Headwaters stood out from other aid organizations he's seen come to Haiti, many of which arrive with a strong, but not always correct, idea of what needs to be done.

"When [Headwaters] first came, they didn't come to help, but to see what needs to be done," he says, noting that other organizations have "disbanded" while Headwaters continues its work at the orphanages.

Leo explains that one of those orphanages, "Johnny's orphanage," is named not for the proprietor, but for a three-year-old boy who "was not in good shape" when Headwaters first arrived, says Leo. "He was weak, he was malnourished, he couldn't walk."

Like many of the orphans, Johnny is "a lot better," he says, following Headwaters' food aid.

For Vennerstrom, that's the great reward.

"For those 25 children, life is better," Vennerstrom says. "And we have a direct impact. Those people who donated have a direct impact."

Jeremy Stratton is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.


Photos, top to bottom:

Volunteer Nicholas Thomley gives his support to a young Haitian.

Cheryl Vennerstrom (l.) and Rebecca Hage Thomley of Orion Associates and Headwaters

Brina Steinek of Headwaters, engulfed by kids

Kristopher Jaeger and a young friend.

Portrait of Vennerstrom and Hage Thomley by Bill Kelley; all other photos courtesy of Headwaters Relief





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